It’s a fact of life that the players who get the goals at World Cups are the ones who etch themselves into people’s minds. Moments such as Mario Götze’s clincher in the Final four years ago, or the Brazilian Ronaldo’s devastating brace against the German’s in 2002, are the iconic images that belong to the goal-scoring heroes.
However, these famous footballing victories would not be possible without the grit, steel and determination of every teams’ true foundation, the defenders. In our first article we looked at the goalkeepers, and in this second ranking we’ll look at five defenders who have the potential to win the player of the tournament award at this year’s showpiece in Russia: the coveted Golden Ball.
The only three defenders to get anywhere near this prize were Bobby Moore (1966), Franz Beckenbauer (1974) and Fabio Cannavaro (2006), who all managed to come second in the voting – which demonstrates just how difficult it is for these underappreciated human-shields to be recognised at the pinnacle of their sport.
5. Diego Godin (Uruguay)
South America is famed for breeding rugged, no-nonsense, streetwise defenders, and the Uruguay Captain fits that mould perfectly. The man known as ‘El Faraón’ (the Pharaoh) looks like a hitman from a 1980’s movie, and many strikers he comes up against may agree that he lives up to that image.
Godin’s recent experience as the key centre-back in Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side has turned him into a true winner, with the knowledge of how to close out victories, and the on-field presence to nudge his side over the line to victory. This is a man who will never give up, and never give in.
Excellent in the air, a master of the interception, tough in the tackle and equipped with a hustler’s knowledge of tricks to knock attackers out of their groove, the man who started his career as a number 10 is not someone that any forward will want to come up against. The first candidate to take up that challenge is likely to be one Mohamed Salah, as ‘the Pharaoh’s’ side fittingly kick-off their campaign against Egypt on Friday 15th June.
4. Jan Vertonghen (Belgium)
The Tottenham centre-back reached new heights in the 2017/18 season. Without his international team-mate Toby Alderweireld alongside him for large portions of the Premier League schedule, the Belgian stepped-up his game to lead the Lillywhites to a top three finish. In a side that contains a plethora of stars it is notable that Vertonghen was voted as the player of the season by the fans.
The man otherwise known as ‘Super-Jan’ captained Ajax to a league title in 2011-12 and was named as the Eredivisie Player of the Year in the same year. Whilst he has not won any club trophies since, his ability as a defender has improved year on year to the point where he is now regarded as one of the most versatile ball-playing centre-backs in the game. Likely to start on the left-side of a three-man defence, Vertonghen’s ability to bring the ball out with confidence and set-up attacks is a bonus for Roberto Martinez’s side.
The recent friendly against Portugal saw the 31-year-old gain his 100th cap, a figure unmatched in the nation’s history. That international experience is invaluable should ‘The Red Devils’ hope to fulfil their undoubted potential, and with the likes of Hazard, Lukaku, de Bruyne and Mertens causing havoc ahead of him, it’s possible that the time has finally come for this golden generation to finally deliver on the international stage.
3. Joshua Kimmich (Germany)
Being compared to a great player can be a wonderful gift but it can also be a frustrating curse, and the Bayern Munich right-back is currently standing firmly in a Philipp Lahm-shaped shadow. To be compared to a modern great of German football is certainly no shame, and the similarities are striking: both men represented the national team at all levels from U17, both spent time at VfB Stuttgart, and the pair both found their niche in the right-back position for ‘Die Bayern’ and ‘Die Mannschaft’.
The talk in Germany however is that Kimmich has the potential to be even better than his illustrious predecessor, and various interviews indicate that the 23-year-old is determined to create his own legacy. Kimmich, like Lahm is known for his positional versatility, playing sometimes as a centre-back during Pep Guardiola’s Bayern reign, defensive midfield for the German U21s, and now in his current role as a full-back. Sound defensively, the youngster really comes to life in attacking areas of the pitch, providing pace and width, assists and goals.
Phillip Lahm had to wait for his final international game to gain a World Cup winners medal – if Joshua Kimmich can do it in 2018, he will already have gone a long way in creating his own legend.
2. Raphaël Varane (France)
Should France live up to many pundits expectations and clinch this year’s trophy, it’s debateable whether Raphaël Varane will have room in his personal trophy cabinet for the award. His club honours with Real Madrid include four Champions Leagues, two La Liga titles and a Copa del Rey scalp in a haul which totals 15 winners medals. Varane’s unassuming, humble demeanour belie a fierce warrior who is regarded by many as the most complete defender on the planet.
At club-level the man dubbed ‘Mr. Clean’ (for his immaculate, error-free defending) won his place in the side by unseating the infamous Portuguese red-card machine Pepe, and is often compared to the ‘Los Blancos’ legend Fernando Hierro – praise indeed. The heart of the 25-year-old’s quality is his all-round game: very few can outpace him, not many can overcome him in terms of strength, and at 6ft 3 most players would need spring-heels to win anything in the air against the Frenchman.
With a likely midfield three of Pogba, Kanté and Matuidi screening the back-four, Varane may not get lots of opportunity to display his prowess in the early rounds, but if France are to make it all the way then this man will undoubtedly be regarded as one of the stars of the tournament.
1. Sergio Ramos (Spain)
Sergio Ramos is a footballer who is as divisive as he is brilliant. Always at the centre of the action, he never hides from a challenge and is impossible to ignore (his terrible world cup anthem certainly backs-up that theory). Time and again the Spaniard has dragged his club side out of impossible situations through force of will. Captain of both club and country, Ramos has won every trophy the game has to offer and in terms of international honours alone, a World Cup (2010) and two European Championships (2008, 2012) speak volumes for the pedigree of the Andalusian.
Every forward who faces Ramos can expect a life or death bout of dominance (through fair means or sometimes foul), from which there is usually only one winner. But to focus too much on the dark-arts employed by Ramos is unfair. From an offensive point of view the centre-back’s technical ability is faultless, his distribution measured and intelligent. Defensively he is difficult to overcome and although a yard slower in the last few years, there is no-one better at reading the game, whether in terms of interceptions, or orchestrating the tempo of the passing as the situation requires.
This is likely to be the final time we see this controversial legend on the greatest stage of all, and with the Spanish captain’s ability to pop up with important goals don’t bet against him going out with a massive bang.